One of the parts I liked about Unscientific America was the recognition that many scientists need to be trained in communication–and as importantly, this training requires funding, so universities have a financial incentive to reward scientific communication and outreach. Mooney and Kirshenbaum also think that non-profit organizations should and will play a critical role in communicating science: not only do we have to train people, we need to actually pay them to communicate. So that’s all good (
TEH RELIGIONISMZ!! AAAIIEEE!!!).
One example of the non-profit model is Rick Weiss, who is an excellent science reporter, and currently writes for Science Progress, which is an online journal hosted by the Center for American Progress. But this example led me to consider a pretty basic question–and one that I don’t think is directly raised by Mooney and Kirshenbaum:
What exactly are we trying to communicate?
This isn’t a trivial issue. Scientists have been pretty unified since 2000 for the basic reason that the conservative movement, led by Little Lord Pontchartrain, launched an unremitting war on basic reality (something Mooney described in The Republican War on Science). It’s pretty easy to remain unified against people who deny basic reality. But what happens when they stop doing so, and instead, engage on policy terms? (an aside: For the last eight years, I have been amazed that, rather than killing progressive initiatives through policy details, conservatives have flat-out denied that the problems even exist. Of course, if no one calls them on the lying–the bad behavior is rewarded–why should they stop?).
At what point do we switch from defending scientific observations to subjective art of making policy? There’s nothing wrong with scientists arguing for policies–why should this be the sole purview of laywers and economists? But it’s not science, it’s public policy advocacy. Take curbing CO2 emissions: there are lots of plans out there. Some of them might work well, others will have little or no effect. It’s not enough to convince people to do something–that something has to work.
Should we advocate for more funding for science? If so, how should we pay for it? Deficit spending? Higher taxes? Program cuts elsewhere?
Thanks to the Hizbollah wing of the GOP, we’ve had it pretty easy. Holding the line on budget cuts, not to mention the acceptance of basic reality, I would argue, is a broadly held consensus among scientists. But there are a lot areas where we don’t agree. One example is the nomination of Francis Collins. Leaving aside the shrieking about TEH RELIGIONISMZ!, scientists disagreed about whether he was the right scientist for the job–should a genomics person be running the NIH?
For me, the unresolved issue is that there is, according to Unscientific America, this thing Science that we scientists et alia are supposed to communicate to the public-at-large, but I’m not sure what that is. There are plenty of good educational fora (although more, particularly on television and the video intertoobz couldn’t hurt). So, assuming our political discourse regains a modicum of sanity, what are we supposed to be communicating?